Showing posts with label Jo Spain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jo Spain. Show all posts

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: December

And so I've come to the end of another year of writing reviews of the books I've read for pleasure. This month's books have a very festive feel, so this is definitely a very December-y post!

In case you're interested, here are the posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here are my reviews of the novels I read in December...

Devil's Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (2017)


I should probably start this with a confession… I haven’t read The Loney (Hurley’s acclaimed debut novel), which makes me one of the only people I know who hasn’t. I included Devil’s Day on a list of books about autumn traditions last year, but didn’t actually get chance to read it until this winter. It’s a strange book – not because of the subject matter (I really don’t mind strange subject matter!) – but in terms of its inconsistency. It has moments of absolute brilliance, but also some sections that don’t really seem that well-written. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion (great) with an unreliable first-person narration disguised at times as third-person (even better). John and his wife Kat have returned to his family’s farm at the Endlands for his grandfather’s funeral, intending to stay on for Devil’s Day and the Gathering (traditions on the farm that presage the start of winter). As the story of that year’s Devil’s Day unfolds, older stories are woven in – the Arncliffes who built the mill, the Dennings who once owned the land, events from John’s childhood, the presence of the Owd Feller himself. There is an incredible sense of place evoked in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the episodes involving the Far Lodge (a building one of the Dennings had constructed on the land). However, there is less clear sense of character created, and I struggled to engage much with any of them. Ultimately, perhaps the Endlands itself is the best-drawn character here.

A Midwinter Promise by Lulu Taylor (2019)


So… bit of a misstep, this one. In December, we went away for our annual holiday to Cornwall. The weather was wild, but we were cosy and warm in our cottage. All year, I’d been saving Christmas-themed books to read while we were there. However, on our first night away, I spotted A Midwinter Promise in the supermarket and decided that it would make perfect holiday reading. The blurb promised (a) winter, (b) secrets, and (c) Cornwall. I bumped it to the top of my list, casting aside all the festive books I’d been saving. And, sadly, I was very disappointed. Taylor’s book begins with a woman called Alex reminiscing about her childhood at Tawray, a rambling old house in Cornwall. When Alex’s dad has a stroke, she starts to wonder about her mother’s early death, and about the secrets that may have been kept by her family. The book then alternates this storyline with chapters set in the 70s, 80s and 90s, which tell the story of Julia (Alex’s mother) and her life at Tawray. The problem with the book is that (a) it’s only partly set in the winter, (b) although characters keep secrets from one another, Taylor doesn’t keep any secrets from the reader and so Julia’s story is crystal clear from the off, and (c) Tawray may nominally be located in Cornwall, but there’s very little sense of place, save a few mentions of how nice the sea looks. Really not impressed with my decision here.

The Darkest Place by Jo Spain (2018)


Back to the books I’d been saving for my holiday… as I’ve mentioned in previous months, my mum and I really like Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels. In fact, it was last December when I read the first in the series and passed it on to my mum. The Darkest Place is the fourth book in the series – though I’ve actually already read the fifth one (I read them out of order so that I could save this one for going away). The Darkest Place is set at Christmas (like With Our Blessing) and sees Reynolds called away from his family celebrations (as in With Our Blessing) to investigate a crime in a remote – and very creepy – location (as in…). The setting for The Darkest Place is a disused asylum on an island, which is accessible only by boat. A mass grave has been discovered, but there’s a body in it that shouldn’t be there. Psychiatrist Dr Conrad Howe disappeared at Christmas forty years earlier, and it now appears he was brutally murdered and left in the hospital grave pit. Reynolds is faced with opening up a cold case, which leads him into the dark heart of the asylum and its ‘treatments’. The Darkest Place treads familiar ground – Spain often returns to darker aspects of Ireland’s history in her books – and its lighter on the personal lives of the detectives than some of the others. Nevertheless, this is a satisfyingly creepy story with a clever puzzle at its centre.

Murder in Advent by David Williams (1985)


I’m not having the best luck with my festive reading this year. This next one was another book I was saving till Christmas, as I thought it would be a good seasonal read. I actually bought it in a charity shop in Truro last Christmas, but I didn’t chance to read it then. I’ve saved it all year, only to discover… it’s not actually a Christmas book at all (despite the title). Murder in Advent is set in the small (fictional) cathedral city of Litchester. The cathedral owns a thirteenth-century exemplification of the Magna Carta, which they are considering selling to raise much-needed funds for the cathedral. Banker Mark Treasure (apparently Williams’s series character) arrives, as he has a deciding vote in the matter, but before anything else can happen, there’s a disturbance in the Old Library. The Dean’s verger is killed, and a fire destroys the valuable artefact. The problem I had with the book (aside from the fact that Advent and Christmas aren’t actually part of the story) is that I simply couldn’t follow who was who. The key characters are introduced in a dazzling chapter early on, and there are a lot of them. If you’re unfamiliar with church roles and titles – if you don’t know what a Dean’s verger is, for instance – it’s a bit of a tricky read. And it’s made harder by the fact that all the characters seem to speak in a similar voice. Sadly, this one just didn’t do it for me.

Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood (2019)


Now this is festive reading. Just what I wanted! Littlewood’s book has all the elements you want from a Christmas book… snow, an isolated farmhouse and ghosts. The book is the story of Leah, who is recently bereaved (she’s lost her husband and young son), and so decides – impulsively – to leave Manchester and buy an abandoned farmhouse in Yorkshire. At Christmas. Buying the farmhouse was Leah’s late husband Josh’s idea, and so she believes this is a way of honouring his memory by trying to bring his dream to reality. The farm – Maitland Farm – once belonged to Leah’s family, so it seems like fate might be playing a hand as well. But when Leah arrives at Maitland Farm, in the darkest depths of winter and heavy snowfall, she discovers that it may be harbouring some grief of its own. Mistletoe is a classic Christmas ghost story, and Littlewood is adept at conjuring an atmosphere that is equal parts tragedy and horror. Leah’s experience of the ghosts of Maitland Farm comes through visions, which take on a life of their own. The past and the present begin to blur, with the eponymous parasitic plant weaving its way through the stories. I’d be wary of calling this a ‘cosy’ story, as there are some disturbing elements, but it certainly belongs to a good old tradition. The ghost story (or the story of the ghosts), perhaps, holds few surprises. But the way that it’s told is just wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Secret Santa by Trish Harnetiaux (2019)


I picked this one up in the supermarket on a whim (despite having collected more than enough festive books over the year). There were a couple of reasons why it caught my attention. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece of flash fiction called ‘Secret Santa’, and since then I seem to keep getting drawn to writing weird versions justice-dispensing Father Christmases. Secondly – and more importantly – the blurb looked like it’d be a good old-fashioned ‘everyone’s locked in the house getting picked off one-by-one’ tale. Claudine and Henry Calhoun are high-flying real estate types in Aspen. Every year, they throw a fancy Christmas party, which involves a competitive Secret Santa game that’s the talk of the town. This year, Claudine’s been contacted by pop star Zara (who bears some slight similarity to a real-life pop star who shall remain nameless). Zara is interested in buying Montague House, the first property Claudine and Henry ever built, and so Claudine decides to move the party to the somewhat remote building. The snow starts to fall, the guests assemble, and there’s an additional gift on the Secret Santa pile… This book was a lot of fun – it’s a quick read, and not necessarily the story you might be expecting, but I really enjoyed it. The tension is well-paced, and Zara emerges as a rather engaging character. Plus, there’s a bit of intrigue, secrecy and rivalry as well. I’m glad I picked this one up – it was a very enjoyable festive read.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018)


Managed to time my festive reading so I could end the year with a New Year-themed book! The Hunting Party takes place during a New Year’s Eve party, so it was the perfect way to end December. A group of old university friends meet up for their annual New Year’s Eve celebrations – this year, they’ve booked an exclusive (but isolated) hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Over the course of the booze-fuelled party, old secrets and resentments surface… and someone’s not going to survive the party. The book is much marketed as an ‘Agatha Christie with menace’ (hmmm… I think Christie’s books had enough menace of their own!), but it’s also been compared to Tartt’s The Secret History (which I didn’t enjoy). However, the book actually does its own thing, and it’s not really fair to compare it to Christie or Tartt’s work. There was a lot that I really enjoyed about The Hunting Party. I loved the multiple narrators, and I was impressed with how easy it was to keep track of a large group of characters. Most of the characters are a bit unlikeable (as you’d expect), but they were very believable and Foley snuck in just the right amount of sympathy. I also enjoyed the way the landscape is used to create an additional sense of seasonal threat. Only downside… Foley’s not quite at Christie’s level when it comes to hiding clues, and so I did work it out very early on. Nevertheless, definitely enjoyed this one.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: November

Bit of a busy month in November, so I didn't get much time for reading. Still, I've got a couple of reviews for this month.

This is the penultimate review post of the year. In case you're interested, the other posts from this year are here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October. But here are my reviews for November...

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)


In February, I read Rachel Joyce’s Perfect and enjoyed it. I picked up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in a charity shop in Cleveleys this summer, and I thought I’d give it a go this month. Joyce’s slightly earlier (and perhaps more famous) novel is the story of Harold Fry. At the very beginning of the book, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, a woman he worked with two decades earlier. Harold hasn’t seen Queenie in twenty years, but he discovers she is now in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold tries to write a reply to Queenie’s letter, but he struggles to find the right words. When he sets out for the postbox, he finds he can’t bring himself to post his attempt, and so… he carries on walking. Joyce’s captivating novel tells the story of Harold’s walk, but it also a lot more. It’s a novel about grief and love (and, like the many people Harold meets along his way, the reader might initially misunderstand the nature of the grief and love behind the story). It’s also a novel about a story that has been resolutely not told for twenty years. When that story emerges, it’s a bit of a sucker punch, and I will admit to sobbing openly at some chapters. But the book is also very funny – and human, hopeful, heart-warming, and hard to put down. Although the setting is a little ‘unlikely’, the characters are surprisingly believable and sympathetic. I really recommend this one.

The Boy Who Fell by Jo Spain (2019)


My mum and I have been working our way through Jo Spain’s novels, ever since I stumbled upon her first DCI Tom Reynolds novel last Christmas. To be honest, I’m wondering why I had to ‘stumble’ on it, as Spain is a really talented writer, and the more I read of her work the more I wonder why I hadn’t seen more people shouting about her work! Anyway, my mum lent me the fourth and fifth books in the series, but I’ve decided to save The Darkest Place for my annual December getaway. The Boy Who Fell is the fifth book in the series – and I sort of suspect it may be the final instalment. And I think it might be my favourite! On the verge of a life-changing promotion, Tom Reynolds is asked by a colleague to look into an apparently open-and-shut case involving her cousin. A young man named Luke Connolly has been pushed to his death from the window of an abandoned house (with a tragic history). The local police already have a suspect in custody, and they believe they have more than enough evidence to secure a prosecution. DCI Reynolds is reluctant to push things – especially since that would leave him open to accusations of trying to cover things up for a colleague – but there’s just enough room for doubt. There’s a neat puzzle, plenty of clues, and a well-paced investigation here. It’s also a surprisingly warm book, with some lovely moments involving the detective’s team.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

My Year in Books 2019: July

Another month gone, and time to do my run-down of the books I read for pleasure. I didn't really get chance to do much reading in July, but I've got four novels on my list, so that's not too bad.

In case you're interested, here are my book reviews from the year so far: January, February, March, April, May, June

And here are my reviews for July...

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)


I’ve still not quite finished the pile of books I bought on my charity shop binge in Bakewell – but I’m working on it! I started this one last month, but I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure recently as I’d like, and it took me longer to finish it than expected. Monkey Beach is Robinson’s debut novel, and I’m pleased to say it was a break from the genre habits I tend to let myself get into. Monkey Beach is the story of Lisamarie Hill, a Native Canadian (specifically Haisla) girl. When Lisamarie’s brother Jimmy goes missing, she sets out to join her parents in the search. During her voyage to meet them, she reflects back on her childhood and the experiences that have led them to this point. Told in a fragmentary – almost dreamlike, in places – style, Monkey Beach is a haunting story that takes in both the personal tragedies of the Hill family, and the broader picture of First Nations cultures and identities. While Robinson doesn’t shy away from presenting the darker side of (post-)colonial First Nations life (referencing the trauma of residential schools, and depicting alcohol and drug use), this is combined with lyrical and poignant descriptions of spiritualism and traditions. The sections describing Lisa’s relationship with her Ma-ma-oo (grandmother) are particularly compelling, as is the almost-shadowy figure of her enigmatic Uncle Mick. There’s no denying that bad things happen in Monkey Beach, but the haunting prose imbues even these with a mystical quality.

The Confession by Jo Spain (2018)


I think this one is the last of the Bakewell charity shop pile! My mum and I were quite taken with Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels, so I was pleased to find a copy of this novel while I was browsing. The Confession is a standalone psychological thriller, which begins with a brutal (and apparently completed unprovoked) attack on semi-disgraced Irish financier Harry McNamara. A man walks into his house and beats him to a pulp with a golf club, in front of his horror-stricken wife Julie. To make matters more confounding, this man then walks straight to the police and hands himself in. He claims not to have any motive or pre-existing relationship with Harry McNamara – but is he telling the truth? The Confession is a whydunit, rather than a whodunit. It switches perspectives between Julie (Harry’s wife), JP Carney (the man who’s confessed to the attack), and third-person chapters detailing the police investigation. Julie and JP are interesting characters, and the background of Ireland’s boom-and-bust economics is well-drawn. And although this is a standalone thriller, Spain can’t seem to resist giving her police officers a bit of backstory too. I read this one quite quickly. It’s an enjoyable page-turner. My own quibble would be that there’s quite a big plot development, and I didn’t quite buy that the police wouldn’t have made the connections a little faster. Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed this one. Spain’s a really good writer with a real talent for storytelling and character creation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2018)


As you may have read in previous review posts, me and my mum have been reading Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway detective series. And, as you may remember, I’ve become a little frustrated with the series and didn’t really enjoy the last one I read. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped me picking up another book by Griffiths! The Stranger Diaries is a standalone Gothic-inflected crime novel, set in the world of literature rather than archaeology. Clare Cassidy is a secondary school English teacher who loves Victorian Gothic novels. While the school she teaches in is low-rated state school in danger of academization, the building incorporates part of an old house that once belonged to Gothic author R.M. Holland. Clare is fascinated by Holland and is in the process of writing a book about him – but then one of her colleagues is bumped off in a manner reminiscent of Holland’s best-known short story. The story is told through alternating narrators and diary entries (a self-conscious nod to Victorian fiction, particularly that of Wilkie Collins), and sections of Holland’s ‘The Stranger’ intersperse the narrative. And I really enjoyed it! It’s an old-school mystery novel with supernatural accents, and it’s a real page-turner. The use of multiple narrators is done well, with the same events being described from different perspectives, and the fictional R.M. Holland casts an intriguing shadow. Personally, I found The Stranger Diaries more effective and gripping than the Ruth Galloway novels – let’s see if my mum agrees with me…

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood (2016)


Decided to take a rare day off and wanted a quick read – something that I knew I could finish in a day. I bought My Sister’s Bones at a charity shop in Cleveleys (day out with the parents-in-law). It’s clearly a domestic noir (which I’ve sworn off), but it’s been favourably compared with The Girl on the Train, so I thought… what’s the harm? As I started reading it, I remembered… they’re all favourably compared with The Girl on the Train. And it’s never a fair comparison. My Sister’s Bones is not great. It’s overwritten (the most egregious example being a description of someone putting vinegar on chips that takes three sentences and includes the phrase ‘pungent brown liquid’), and the storyline is riddled with implausibility and inconsistency. Kate is a journalist, who returns to Herne Bay from Syria with PTSD. Her sister Sally is an alcoholic who has stayed in Herne Bay. They don’t interact for most of the book – the title is seriously misleading, as there are no ‘bones’ and very little about ‘sisters’. Kate is staying in her recently deceased mother’s house, despite the fact that she had no relationship with her mother and shows no desire to clear or look after her mother’s possessions. She keeps hearing a child screaming and comes to believe that the neighbour is in an abusive relationship. It all builds to a ludicrous climax involving a dungeon under a shed (no apologies for the spoiler). This isn’t a recommendation from me.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

My Year in Books 2019: April

I'm carrying on my blog review project for another month... though I've pretty much gone back to crime fiction and some favourite authors for this month. No domestic noir for me in April!

In case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from 2019: January, February, March. But here are the books I read in April...

Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain (2016)


I discovered Jo Spain in December, when I bought a copy of her first novel (With Our Blessing) in a charity shop. I enjoyed the book and passed it on to my mum. She enjoyed it so much, she immediately went out and bought two more of Spain’s novels. And now she’s passed those on to me. Beneath the Surface is the second book in the detective series, so it features the same team of detectives as With Our Blessing. D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate a murder at Leinster House, the seat of the Irish parliament. Ryan Finnegan, a highly-regarded government official, has been shot – and the suspects are made up of the great and the good of Irish politics. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as With Our Blessing, but that says much more about my tastes than Spain’s writing. I loved the Gothic atmosphere of the snowed-in convent at Christmas in the first book, and the world of politicians, civil servants and lobbyists wasn’t quite as creepy and evocative. However, Spain’s writing is great, and Beneath the Surface is definitely another page-turner. I also really liked the good balance Spain struck between political intrigue and murder mystery (even if I did spot the killer a little bit too early!). The detectives here are easy to like, and their personal lives don’t dominate too much. A warning though… there are With Our Blessing spoilers in this one, so best to read the books in order.

Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain (2017)


I decided just to go straight to Jo Spain’s next book – also lent by my mum. Sleeping Beauties is another mystery for D.I. Tom Reynolds and his team, though at first it seems to be quite a different sort of crime novel to Beneath the Surface. The book begins with the discovery of a woman’s body at the tourist spot of Glendalough. The body has been buried in a shallow grave, and the detectives quickly work out that it’s missing woman Una Dolan. But they also realize that there are four other grave sites in the same area – Reynolds’s team are faced with a serial killer. While Sleeping Beauties does tread familiar ‘hunt for a serial killer’ ground – there’s some profiling, lots of working out the ‘type’ that the victims adhere to, some pretty grisly and unsettling details – it is still a mystery. As in her previous books, Spain is keen to follow the same rules of detective fiction that you might find in older mysteries (the killer is always someone who has appeared in the story before, for instance). There are also some neat clues – one in particular that I really liked (no spoilers!) – that make this a proper whodunit, rather than a procedural thriller. Again, Spain strikes a good balance between the case and the detectives’ private lives, though I must admit I found myself really rooting for one non-case-related storyline a bit more than I thought I would. A well-written and compelling read – definitely recommend this one.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths (2017)


I read one of Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels last month, after buying it from a charity book sale at the supermarket. This month, I discovered another book in the series on the same shelf so I thought I’d give it a go. It was kind of a weird experience. The previous book I’d read was the second in the series (The Janus Stone), but The Chalk Pit is the ninth – so I was picking up with characters nearly seven years after I’d last seen them. However, the basic set-up remains the same: Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist who helps the Norfolk police out with their investigations. D.I. Harry Nelson is the lead cop for the series (and his relationship with Ruth is… complicated). In The Chalk Pit, bones are discovered on an underground building site (which is also how The Janus Stone kicked off, but that’s fair enough, since there’s very little other reason to bring in a forensic archaeologist) – certain markings on the bones lead Ruth to suspect something very sinister has been going on under the streets of Norfolk. When Nelson’s team are contacted about a missing homeless woman, the picture starts to look even creepier. This is an entertaining read, with some interesting bits about tunnels and catacombs (and some virtuous commentary on homelessness and rough sleeping). However, as with The Janus Stone, the book tends to get a little bogged down in the ongoing (increasingly complicated) soap opera of the detectives’ private lives.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)


I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s novels (though weirdly not, as I discovered last year, of her Jackson Brodie books). Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my favourite books of all time, and I really loved Life After Life and A God in Ruins – now there’s a book with a twist. Like Life After Life and God in Ruins, Transcription is partly set during WWII, though (as with the other two) there’s a good chunk that takes place after the war as well. Transcription is a spy novel, and it follows the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited into the Secret Service to help with an operation to root out Fascist sympathizers in Britain. As befits a spy novel, the task Juliet is given is sometimes murky and uncertain, and the chain of command isn’t always clear. The story moves between 1940, when Juliet is working for MI5, and 1950, when Juliet is working for the BBC; however, the war casts long shadows, and the 1950 storyline sees figures from the past coming back to confront Juliet. Transcription is written in Atkinson’s characteristic style, so it’s full of things that are unsaid, unclear and confusing. Everything is connected, though, and the book builds towards an ending that is full of revelations. And yet, it’s also a spy novel, so that ending also leaves some questions unanswered. The historical details in Transcription are really captivating, and Atkinson draws you into Juliet’s world with her usual brilliance.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters (2000)


Don’t know where to start with this one – this book devastated me (I literally stayed up all night to finish it, so I’m shattered too). I really enjoyed The Sculptress, but haven’t actually read any other books by Walters. So I thought I’d give The Shape of Snakes a go. The book begins in Richmond in 1978, with the death of a woman known as ‘Mad Annie’. Annie is the only black person on the street and has suffered a variety of torments at the hands of her white neighbours. As we learn early on, Annie also has Tourette’s (hence the ‘Mad’ soubriquet), and drinks to self-medicate. Annie’s death is recorded as an accident, but the narrator (known only as ‘M’ or ‘Mrs Ranelagh’) believes she was murdered. And she is not for letting that go, even when the neighbours turn on her. However, all of this happens before the story really begins – the bulk of the book takes place in 1999, when M returns from overseas ostensibly to investigate, but actually to resolve the unsettling situation. You may know that I’m fond of unreliable narrators – and M is just that. There is so much to the story that the narrator is withholding from the reader in this one. It’s a deeply disturbing book (with violence, sexual assault, racism and animal cruelty – be warned), but so incredibly well-constructed and well-written that it completely blew me away. The last page reduced me to uncontrollable tears – that’s how you write an ending!

Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh (1941)


I recently had a bit of charity shop binge while we were staying in Bakewell (there’s a lot of charity shops in Bakewell). The Shape of Snakes was one of the books I bought – the next one on the pile was Surfeit of Lampreys, which is quite a different kettle of fish. I haven’t read a huge amount of Ngaio Marsh – I’ve never rated the Inspector Alleyn books quite as high as some other Golden Age detective fiction – but I’ve enjoyed the books I have read. And Surfeit of Lampreys is certainly enjoyable. The book introduces the Lamprey family, a gaggle of charming eccentrics who coast from financial crisis to financial crisis without getting particularly ruffled about it. The early section of the book is mostly concerned with setting up the characters (the many Lampreys, and their friend Roberta Grey) and their idiosyncratic lifestyle. However, things take a darker turn when the Lampreys’ boring (but rich) Uncle Gabriel is murdered at their London flat. It’s up to Inspector Alleyn to work out whodunit. Surfeit of Lampreys is a curious book: the fatuous, fashionable silliness of the Lamprey family is juxtaposed with a particular brutal and grisly murder, and the investigation takes place almost entirely at the scene of the crime. It’s a wonderful – and very entertaining – character study, with some light-hearted commentary on the finances of the landed gentry, but the puzzle at the heart of it isn’t quite as fiendish as it first appears. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My Year in Books 2018: December

Well... I did it! I stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I read loads more novels for pleasure (i.e. in addition to the ones that, while still very pleasurable, I had to read for work, review or my radio show), and I kept up with my short reviews for each one.

And I'll let you into a little secret... while I did say that my reviews were going to be a maximum of 250 words, in fact every single one was exactly 250 words. I didn't intend to do that, but the first one I wrote was dead on 250, and I thought it would be interesting to see how long I could keep that up. It was actually quite a fun exercise (well, my idea of fun anyway), and I might keep going into 2019 with it.

You can read the other Year in Books posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here's the final list - the books I read in December.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (2018)


Each year, we stay in a cottage in Cornwall for the week before Christmas. As in most holiday cottages, there’s a little shelf of paperbacks, and this book had been left by another guest since our last trip. It’s interesting that I started the year discovering Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and then ended it with Three Things About Elsie, as they have much in common. Cannon’s book is about Florence, a woman in her eighties who is having trouble remembering things (the ‘D’ word is mentioned a couple of times, but the book takes a broader view on memory, grief and ageing than simply a diagnosis). Florence spends her time talking to her best friend – the eponymous Elsie – and generally being a thorn in the side of the staff at Cherry Tree supported accommodation. One day, a new resident moves in, and Florence is sure it’s a man named Ronnie Butler – but Ronnie died in 1953, and Florence is forced to try and remember what happened sixty years ago (with a bit of help from Elsie). This is a book that deals with the terror that comes from having no one who will listen – or hear – what you’re trying to say to them, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a celebration of the ways in which we are all connected, and how one life can touch and change others (even if it’s not apparent at the time). Moving, thought-provoking, compassionate – but above all, charming. Highly recommended.

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (1937)


My mother-in-law has bought me quite the collection of British Library Crime Classic books over the years. I like to save most of them for when we’re on our pre-Christmas getaway, as there’s something special about reading these Golden Age gems in an isolated cottage on a Cornish cliff-top. The first one I read this year was Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry – though it’s a London mystery rather than a country house one (which might have been more fitting). Lorac’s mystery revolves around Bruce Attleton, a once successful writer who is happily living off his actress wife’s income. Attleton’s friends – Neil Rockingham and Robert Grenville – become convinced their friend is being blackmailed by a sinister (possibly foreign) man named Debrette, and they decide to do a bit of investigating. Their search takes them to a bizarre and incongruous old building in Notting Hill. Known as the Belfry (or, sometimes, the Morgue) this decrepit old pile was once a religious house but is now a run-down studio favoured by artists. And it seems Debrette has been renting it. Things take a confusing turn when both Attleton and Debrette go missing, and so Rockingham and Grenville turn to C.I.D. (in the shape of Lorac’s regular detective Chief Inspector Macdonald) for assistance – but is everything as it seems? With an excellent (as always) introduction from Martin Edwards, Bats in the Belfry is everything I want from a BL Crime Classic: atmospheric, evocative, and with a strong sense of place and time. Loved it.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (2016)


And I continued my holiday foray into the BL Crime Classics with a collection of short stories. This anthology is a selection of country house mysteries, selected and edited by the excellent Martin Edwards, whose knowledge and affection for Golden Age detective fiction is evident in every title in the BL’s series. This collection is themed around setting – all of the stories take place in what is, to some degree or another, the country seat of a landed family, though (as Edwards points out in his introduction) Golden Age fiction often engages directly with the changing face of the country house through the various socio-political shifts of the twentieth century. Not all of the houses here are still ‘in the family’, and not all of them are as cosily domestic as they might once have been. Nevertheless, all the selected stories share the ‘closed circle’ of the house party mystery, in which a small but often diverse group of people are thrown together for a short time. The stories collected here vary from the ‘straight’ murder mystery (e.g. ‘The Problem of Dead Wood Hall’ by Dick Donovan) to the thriller (e.g. ‘An Unlocked Window’ by Ethel Lina White). There’s even a light-hearted parody of the subgenre from E.V. Knox (‘The Murder at the Towers’). Bookended by pre- and post-Golden Age stories (‘The Copper Beeches’ by Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘Weekend at Wapentake’ by Michael Gilbert), this anthology gives a great overview of the pleasures and perils of the country house.

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper (2018)


I picked this up in the supermarket on a whim while we were away – I don’t know why, as I’d packed enough books to keep me going for months. I had a bit of debate whether to read this or the Christmas-themed BL Crime Classic I’d been saving for the festive season, but in the end decided to go with Draper’s book – and it turned out to be a win-win, as a large part of Cuckoo is set at Christmas too! It’s also the perfect book for reading in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. The blurb intrigued me, but I was sort of expecting something along the lines of other psychological thrillers I’ve read this year: a woman goes back to clear her family home after the death of her stepmother (who hated her). Being back home brings back painful memories of her childhood, and she’s forced to confront the long-buried secrets from her past. Okay, okay – clearly I’m a sucker for this type of plot, as I’ve read at least two other books with that exact premise this year. But… Cuckoo blew me away. I genuinely stayed up for hours unable to put it down (clich├ęd as that may sound). It’s dark, unsettling and compelling – but it’s also incredibly well-written and just a really good story. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cuckoo is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and this is totally down to Draper’s excellent storytelling. Loved it.

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith (1933)


Time for another BL Crime Classic, and one that I was saving for the festive season. Although, as it turns out, it’s not wasn’t the most festive book I’ve ever read! Meredith’s novel is an unusual one. Its set-up is very much that of a Golden Age whodunit – an unpleasant man gathers his family together for Christmas at the country house, only to be murdered by one of the guests – but the book is actually a thriller, and a rather cynical and hard-edged one. This isn’t a whodunit, as the reader sees the murder taking place, and is then offered a first-person insight from the murderer as to the reasons and motives. What emerges is a book that almost works as a dissection of Golden Age detective fiction, which reveals the things that are never said in country house mysteries and the subtle obscurities that we fans take for granted. All of the characters in the book are given some backstory and explanation that allows us to see them as people, rather than simply characters in a well-trodden formulaic plot. Most fascinating, for me, is the detail given to one of the housemaids who, in any other book, would have been simply a felicitous plot device. Meredith does a great job of reminding us that all those oodles of undifferentiated servants bustling through Golden Age mysteries are really people with pasts, families, hopes and ambitions. This is not a cosy novel by any means, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain (2015)


Another impulse purchase from when we were on holiday – this time, a book I picked up in a charity shop in Truro. And would you believe it? It’s also set at Christmas (or at least the run-up to Christmas)! This is Jo Spain’s debut novel – she’s published (I think) three others since. I’ll admit, Spain’s wasn’t a name I’d come across. I picked the book up because it looked like a good atmospheric winter read, and I’m a sucker for ‘crimes of the past haunt the present’ storylines. And my instincts were right – I really enjoyed this one! The book begins with a prologue set in 1975 – a young woman gives birth in a Magdalene laundry, and her baby is taken from her by the nuns before she can even hold it. The book then moves us into 2010, and D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate the murder of an unidentified elderly woman found mutilated and displayed in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the woman turns out to have been a nun, and that the investigation leads Reynolds and his team to a (very atmospheric – and snowed-in) convent. This is a chunky book (surprisingly long for a debut novel), but a real page-turner. The underlying motive for the crime didn’t come as much of a surprise, but Spain’s writing style is engaging and the setting is beautifully evoked. A solid contemporary crime novel – I’m glad I picked this one up.